When to intervene militarily (a Yom Hashoah reflection)

When to intervene militarily (a Yom Hashoah reflection)

I’m republishing this post today, in honor of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As you’ll read, the Holocaust had a very direct impact on my immediate family.

With the centennial last August of the beginning of World War I, a conflict pivotal to world history and the fate of my own family, I’ve been moved to write on this subject (not just of WW I, but of more recent armed conflicts) several times: First, in The Forward, with a piece given the somewhat cumbersome title of “A century after world war I, we don’t put ourselves on the line for beliefs.” Then, in the History News Network –“The Real Lessons of 1914.”  And most recently, in the current (Spring 2015) issue of Jewish Currents — “In Support of Military Intervention to Protect Human Rights.”


Germans attack Russian positions at Zurawno, my parents’ native shtetl, in June 1915.

This latest piece begins more or less as follows (the published version is slightly different):

My Polish-Jewish refugee parents made their way to the United States, almost miraculously, in June 1941.  My father’s family—his widowed mother, two sisters, a brother and their children—were all murdered as Nazi forces advanced into Soviet-occupied Galicia.  We have evidence that my mother’s parents from the same shtetl survived heroically for another year or so, hiding within a deserted ghetto until captured by Ukrainian militiamen.

This personal history gave me an awareness of the vital need at times for countries to go to war to avert or end man-made humanitarian catastrophes.  Yet in affirming a necessity for the occasional use of military force, I do not advocate a militaristic foreign policy on the part of the United States.  Rather, I favor collective action by an alliance of nations dedicated to the basic principles of the United Nations Charter.

As Jews—members of a small vulnerable people who have often suffered persecution —we should be invested in a world order safeguarded by humanitarian international law. It’s not by accident that Raphael Lemkin, personally devastated by the Holocaust, would invent the word, “genocide,” and dedicate his life to making it a crime.

At the same time, we of all people should know that victims of crimes against humanity cannot materially rely on international law alone to protect them at the moment of assault.  People under attack need to be defended by armed force.  . . . [Click here for the entire article online.]

As a progressive (or a “liberal,” as I prefer to be called), I know that I’m being controversial in advocating a more aggressive use of military force than most of my ideological kin prefer.  So Larry Bush, my friend who edits Jewish Currents, insisted that the following critique — of an almost automatic left-liberal default against using force — be deleted from my piece.  I ask your forbearance to read it and comment, if you wish:

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m arguing against an absolute rejection of military power as an instrument of foreign policy, now prevalent in the liberal left, even as I acknowledge its limitations.

Liberals were generally untroubled about deploying troops in the past. Although there was some dissent from the left, most liberals rallied around the flag for both World Wars, as well as Korea.  They came to oppose the Vietnam War—but only after it appeared endless and unwinnable following the Tet Offensive of 1968.

I remember this stunning example from my teen years of a liberal picking and choosing his interventions: the historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. opposed LBJ’s intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965,* but proposed that the troops of the 101st Airborne Division patrolling Santo Domingo would have served us better if dispatched to South Vietnam!

Only because of the volume of blood spilled, treasure expended and discord sown by the Vietnam experience, did opposition to military action become the default position for liberal Democrats.  The first time this perspective [the ‘default’ anti-war position] struck me as wrong was when most Democrats in Congress opposed George H. W. Bush’s mobilization to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. It seemed like a no-brainer to me that the international community collectively liberate a UN member state from a wholesale occupation by another country. The fact that Bush Sr. organized a broad international coalition (unlike his son in the following decade), with U.N. backing, seemed to be exactly what he should have done.

Yet in the end, he encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, only to abandon them when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf permitted Saddam to use helicopter gunships and tanks to kill tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds. So Bush Sr. was more committed to a superficial notion of international order and to defending strategic sources of oil for the West, than to protecting the human rights of imperiled people.

And I am not in favor of unilateral uses of force that go against a wide international consensus, which is why after being initially sympathetic, I decided against the 2003 invasion of Iraq after the U.N. Security Council voted against.

*I was actually punched by a junior high school chum, exasperated by my reaction at the time that LBJ’s intervention in the D.R. “stinks.” Eventually, both of us — as well as Arthur Schlesinger — (being good liberals) came to oppose U.S. policy in Vietnam. My point being that the correct course of action is not always obvious. 

By | 2015-04-16T06:46:34-04:00 April 16th, 2015|Blog, International Policy|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Tom Mitchell April 16, 2015 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Ralph, I agree with you that multilateral humanitarian intervention is usually better than unilateral intervention. But the UN has a bad record in peace making as opposed to peace-keeping missions. The UN has had three major interventions: Korea (1950), Congo (1960), and Somalia (1993). Korea was basically a flag of convenience for an Anglo-American intervention with the support of many other Western and pro-Western governments, similar to the Gulf War. In the Congo the UN mission’s main effect was to end the secession of Katanga but leaving the rest of the country in chaos. In Somalia mission creep led to the failure of the intervention, which admittedly resulted from an emotional gesture by President George Bush in his final days in power. NATO has had a much better record first in limited air strikes in Bosnia in 1994, then in Kosovo in 1999, and finally in Libya, where unfortunately the country has been left in chaos following the downfall of the Kaddafi regime.

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